Sometimes its the little things that make the difference. As a landscape photographer I am always on the search for the BIG image the WOW image the right light in the right location to make a big impact. But sometimes we need to take a moment to look for the small stories within the BIG image. Those intimate landscapes can create a more personal connection with the location. They have their own stories to tell and are just waiting for the photographer to see them.
I love new locations and rarely turn down an opportunity to shoot something new. But every new location can be both exciting and overwhelming. There s so much to see and what to photograph first? I want to jump in and shoot it all! In that moment I don’t see the details I see the BIG scene and to move from overwhelmed to creating images I need to breathe and walk the scene the entire location before I take out my camera and take the first shot. This gives me time to absorb it all. This little step helps me move past the rapid fire shots to seeing the scenes within the BIG picture which results in fewer shots but more keepers.
On a recent trip to the Lonaconing Silk Mill it would have been very easy to focus solely on the big rooms filled with rusting machines. The shapes, colors and leading lines were everywhere! That would tell one story, the story of what happens when a plant closes. But, considering that this plant closed at the end of a shift, with the workers unaware of the pending closure, so many left their personal belongings. Finding and showing those details was a much more impactful story for me. What do you leave at work knowing that you will come back tomorrow to retrieve it. What would happen if you couldn’t go back? What would someone find 50 years from now that you left and what story would it tell?
The Story of Lonaconing:
The Lonaconing Silk Mill, also referred to as the Klotz Throwing Company, is the last intact silk mill in the United States. It is located in Lonaconing, Maryland within the National Lonaconing Historic District and the site was nominated by the George’s Creek Watershed Association for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
In the early years of the mill, raw silk and Douppinni, an expensive silk that was used in the production of wedding gowns, were thrown at the mill. The throwing process involved the twisting and winding of silk into a yarn that was then used by knitters and weavers. Occasionally, the silk thread was broken due to the twisting and winding of the thread onto 4-inch bobbins, and the operator would tie the broken strands together with a silk knot. Other employees were involved in the steaming, dying and stretching of the silk, while others worked in the shipping department, sending the processed silk product to market.
It was only a year after the plant was built that the company was able to begin repaying the investment from the residents of Lonaconing. An addition to the mill was constructed in 1916 due to increased demand. By September 1920, the mill employed 359 with an average payroll of $8,491. The mill was responsible for adding $100,000 to Lonaconing’s economy annually by 1922 and provided a stable employment for those that were lucky enough to work there as it offset periods of turbulence in the coal industry.
At some point in the 1910’s, employees at Klotz Throwing Company were unionized under the United Mine Workers (UMW). The affiliation with the UMW reflected the fact that many employees had family involved in the UMW, but the affiliation was eventually changed to the United Textile Workers of America (UTWA). The UTWA also represented the Cumberland Silk Mill, also owned by the Klotz Throwing Company. The first recorded union due date was 1917 at 15 cents per month.
For all of the good impact had on the local economy, there were still some disputes. In 1921, mill employees went on strike which lasted for two weeks.
The Great Depression had some impact on the Klotz Throwing Company. Pay had decreased substantially due to slumping demand for silk products, illustrated by 111 workers being paid just $1,547 in February 1933.6 The mill reorganized as the General Textile Mills Company.
As the Great Depression waned, employment increased towards its pre-recession numbers – but troubles loomed ahead. At the beginning of World War II, General Textile found its supply of raw silk disputed due to the United States declaring war with a major supplier: Japan. The General Textile briefly closed when the government imposed trade sanctions against all Japanese imports. Employment declined under 200 for the mill during the early parts of the war. Pay decreased, and those who were employed were frequently moved into part-time positions. Any remaining raw silk in the mill was used to produce parachute thread for the service members.
From the first quarter of 1941 to the third quarter, the mill employed between 70 and 80 before dropping to just 27 by August 16. Throughout the third and fourth quarters of the year, employment dipped under 20. Between December 16 and 31, only 5 workers were present working a total 380 hours.
But it was not long before production increased at the mill along with employment numbers. To compensate for the lack of silk, the mill converted to rayon, a synthetic silk material which was cheaper to purchase in bulk and of the same texture. From February 1 to the 15, 1942, employment increased to 30 before tripling to 94 employees between March 16 to 31.
After the war had ended, raw silk was once again spun but at a decreased percentage compared to rayon. In 1946, an addition was completed on the mill to run additional synthetic materials, a sign of increased demand post-war. But the growth was only temporary. Whereas the mill once employed over 200 on three shifts prior to the war, employment numbers had decreased to under 200 by 1950. Not long after, less than 100 worked for General Textile. The company had not invested sufficiently into the mill, and the facility was equipped with outdated equipment. Demand for silk by consumers also declined and it could not be offset by rayon.
Wes Duckworth, mill superintendent during the 1950’s, was much worried about the future of the Lonaconing operation. The workers had requested an increase in wages to bring it up to the nearby Celanese textile workers; additionally, raw material prices were rising. Duckworth traveled to Klotz’s headquarters in New York on behalf of the workers to bargin with customers of mill and request an increase in product price.
The trip did not go over well. Customers balked at any increase in product price, wanting instead a product price reduction. Returning to Maryland, Duckworth faced the workers.
’I told them then that it doesn’t look like they re going to give you any money, so if you strike, it will only be for yourself. I’m warning you. So, they went out and that was the end of it.Wes Duckworth, mill superintendent
The employees went on strike, which prompted the company to close the mill. The last payroll to 67 employees was made on June 23, 1957. Only six workers remained on the payroll six days later. On July 7, with just five employees remaining, the mill closed. A skeleton crew of four employees remained on site for several years after to maintain the building and equipment.
The impact of the mill’s closure was devastating. Lonaconing, once the center of early industry in western Maryland was in shambles. The mines, which provided employment, were fickle at best and pig iron production had ceased. Glass factories were gone, and now the mill. Soon after, deep underground coal mining had ceased. The town’s economy went into decline and the population decreased accordingly.